What Is Salvation?

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Suppose on a beautiful summer afternoon you wade into a waist-high pool to enjoy a cool swim. Suddenly the lifeguard splashes into the water after you, grabs you, and starts to drag you back to the side. When you indignantly resist, he tells you to stop fighting his efforts to save you from drowning. Most likely you would consider this lifeguard to be delusional. Why? Because you are not drowning in the first place, so you do not need saving. The very idea of salvation presupposes something destructive from which you need rescue.

In the previous chapter, we saw that fallen human beings have a fundamental problem: sin. Its presence is everywhere, its terrible effects incalculable. It enslaves and victimizes human beings even as they willingly perpetrate it. Worse still, it leaves us completely alienated from God and subject to His just and fearful wrath. To top it all off, there is nothing we can do to deliver ourselves from it. This is what makes the gospel genuinely good news, for it declares salvation in Christ Jesus. Salvation is deliverance from sin in all its forms and effects through Jesus Christ.

Just think of how comprehensive this deliverance is. If sin brings God’s just penalty of death, salvation delivers us from God’s just wrath and declares us righteous in His sight (Gal. 3:13; Rom. 1:18–3:31; 5:12–21). If sin holds us in bondage, salvation breaks its chains and frees us to serve Christ (Rom. 6:1–7, 19–22). If sin corrupts everything we are and do, salvation transforms us into Christ’s perfect image (1 John 3:2–3; Rom. 8:29; 6:13). If sin distorts and defiles the world around us (Rom. 3:17–19; Eccl. 1:2; Rom. 8:18–25), salvation culminates in the perfection of the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21–22).

God’s agenda in salvation is grand indeed, but it comes in stages. Sometimes believers think of their salvation only in the past tense, in that they are already saved. This is certainly true, but God is not finished with believers once they trust Christ. As we just saw, His agenda is more than delivering us from hell, as great as that may be. For a believer, then, salvation is a past, present, and future reality (Titus 2:11–14; 1 Peter 1:3–9). The gospel is not “old news” once a person trusts in Christ. It is good news for our present and future as well as our past.

Most religions claim to save people, whether from sin or something else. And in virtually all of them, human beings work to achieve their own salvation. The salvation proclaimed in the gospel is radically different. The theology of the Protestant Reformation nicely summarized this message in the five solas (the term sola is Latin for “alone”): We are saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solus Christus), to the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria), according to Scripture alone (sola scriptura). We have already discussed Scripture alone (sola scriptura) in connection with Scripture’s authority; in this context it is a reminder that the message of salvation is rooted in the final authority of Scripture. But let’s focus more on the other terms here.

“Our salvation is entirely the work of God in Christ.”

We are saved by grace alone. Grace is God’s unmerited favor granted kindly to His sinful creatures. In many ways all human beings receive God’s grace in, for example, the blessings of life (Acts 17:25), sustenance (Acts 14:17), basic morality (Rom. 2:14–15), and governmental order (Rom. 13:1–7). This is called common grace. But everyone who is saved has received a special kind of grace beyond common grace. This saving grace, as the name indicates, is the grace by which God grants salvation in all its fullness to His people. And it is solely due to this grace that we are saved (Eph. 2:1–10). In no way do we earn our salvation; indeed, we contribute nothing to it. Our salvation is not our own doing but the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).

This is where faith comes in. Our salvation is God’s gracious gift received through faith alone. Faith is contrasted with works, which refer to the human effort to earn God’s favor by doing good deeds. If salvation were a result of my good works, I could then boast. I could take pride in what I did to earn my salvation. In contrast, faith is only God-centered. It acknowledges our inability to save ourselves and instead trusts God to save us in loving mercy, despite our unworthiness (Eph. 2:8–9). Through faith we receive God’s gift of salvation and trust Him completely for it.

But faith is not an empty vessel. We are not saved merely by having faith in something; we are saved by the object of our faith, the One we are trusting for salvation. In short, we are saved solely through faith in Christ alone. Our salvation is entirely the work of God in Christ (1 Cor. 1:26–31; 1 Tim. 2:3–7). It is realized only in who Christ is and what He has done. This is why our union with Christ through faith is the heart of our salvation. It is also why we don’t need additional mediators (clergy or saints) or our own good works to supplement Christ’s perfect work (Heb. 7:23–25; 9:11–28).

Further, salvation in Christ alone means that it cannot be found apart from Christ. This is called religious exclusivism, which maintains that since salvation can only be found through faith in Christ, no other religion can save. This contrasts with two other notions common in our day. Religious pluralism maintains that salvation can be found in many religions because there are many ways to God. But this view contradicts the Bible’s insistence that salvation is found exclusively in Christ (Acts 4:12; John 14:6; 1 John 5:12). Religious inclusivism agrees that salvation does indeed come only through Christ, but it argues that people do not need to trust specifically in Christ for salvation if they have not heard the gospel. This view, however, does not deal adequately with the Bible’s teaching about the centrality of gospel proclamation and faith specifically in Christ (Rom. 10:8–17; John 3:18).

If salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then it is also to the glory of God alone. God gets all the credit for our salvation. Having contributed nothing to our salvation, we have nothing to boast about in ourselves (Rom. 4:1–8). All our praise, honor, and worship must instead be directed to God alone for our salvation (1 Cor. 1:26–31; Rom. 11:33–36). “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31).

For Further Reading:

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